SPARTA, Ky. — Sarah Fisher grew up in Ohio, a couple of pit stops from Indianapolis Motor Speedway. She got hooked on the drama of the Indy 500 early, dreaming about zipping down the frontstretch on Memorial Day weekend at 220 mph.
The popular IndyCar driver is also mindful of history. She knows the Brickyard is where open-wheel racing in the U.S. was born, and for decades the signature moments have come at superspeedways like Indy, which allow the cars do what they do best: go really, really fast.
Yet Fisher — the team owner, not the driver — also knows that times change. Oval racing on the series isn’t what it used to be, which is why she wasn’t surprised when the 2010 IndyCar Series schedule unveiled last week featured more road races (nine) than oval races (eight) for the first time.
Longtime stops at Milwaukee and Richmond — both ovals — are off the schedule in favor of new road events in Brazil and Alabama. Does the move away from ovals mean IndyCar is getting away from its roots?
“The series was built around the Indianapolis 500 and if I remember right, that’s an oval,” Fisher said with a laugh. “I think they’ve had some success at the road course events and they’re trying to branch out a little bit and look at the big picture. For me personally, it’s disappointing because I grew up on short tracks and I grew up racing ovals and I’ve been on the front row a couple times at Richmond and I love places like that.”
Don’t get Fisher wrong. She’d love nothing more than to find enough sponsorship to run in every race next year, regardless of the venue.
Yet doing so would mean having to buy another car for her decidedly small operation. Dollar General, the primary sponsor for Sarah Fisher Racing, has only pledged to send her to races at oval tracks. That deal expires at the end of the year.
Finding another sponsor to help her run on both the road courses and the ovals won’t be easy. And it won’t be cheap.
“The schedule is so tight, when you’re coming from the Long Beach race to race at Kansas the next weekend, to be able to flip that properly, you’ve got to at least have another car,” she said.
Then again, Fisher the owner knows the series will do what it believes is necessary to survive.
“I want to see what’s best for the league,” she said. “I want the IndyCar Series to grow and get bigger.”
For now that means edging away from the oval racing that has been the series’ foundation, part of a business plan designed to help IndyCar expand its brand globally.
“We want to serve the markets where we feel our racing product will be well-received,” said Terry Angstadt, director of IndyCar’s commercial division. “Where can our product be successful and where can we find strong, motivated promoters?”
Increasingly, those places are farther and farther away from places like Indy.
Where some see a disappointing break from tradition, others see progress.
“Forty years ago guys used to race with leather helmets, we don’t do that anymore,” said 2004 series champion Tony Kanaan.
The way Kanaan looks at it, the move is symptomatic of the direction the open-wheel racing in the U.S. has been drifting for decades.
Years ago, IndyCar’s predecessors featured mostly American drivers driving mostly American cars.
Now the engines are powered by Honda and the stars come from all points on the globe. The 23 drivers in last week’s race at Kentucky hailed from 10 different countries.
Kanaan is one of a handful of series regulars — including three-time Indy 500 winner Helio Castroneves — who are from Brazil. Defending points champion Scott Dixon is from New Zealand. Former champion Dario Franchitti is from Scotland.
“We have Honda, we have drivers from all over the place,” Kanaan said. “You’ve got to expand. We’re reaching Canada, Japan, Brazil, we’re going worldwide. That’s what you have to do.”
It’s not that Kanaan doesn’t have a sense of history. He knows there’s nothing in racing like the Indy 500, where he is still searching for his first victory. He also knows the days where the 500 was big enough to prop up the rest of the season are over.
There’s too much competition — be it from NASCAR or Formula 1 — that the series has to look at ways to better market itself.
“If you look at sports, how many sports have been built by something and then you grow and it changes,” he said. “Besides, I’m a road course kind of guy. I believe it’s awesome.”
The decision, ironically, came on a weekend featuring the most exciting oval race of the year.
Series officials made significant changes to the aerodynamics and the engine — including the adoption of the “Push to Pass” button designed to give drivers a little help in getting around an opponent — to provide a more exciting product.
The result? A thrilling 10-lap duel to the finish between Ryan Briscoe and Ed Carpenter, who ran side-by-side over the final stages with Briscoe pulling out a victory in 0.0162 seconds.
It’s unlikely this weekend’s race at Mid-Ohio will provide such a tight finish. Will Power dominated the last road race, leading 90 of 95 laps at Edmonton two weeks ago.
Speedway Motorsports Inc. owner Bruton Smith — who has 1.5-mile ovals at Kentucky Speedway and Texas Motor Speedway — likened road races to scrums around a parking lot and doesn’t see the move away from ovals as one that will spur growth.
“It’ll come back to bite them in the rear eventually,” Smith said. “I don’t know who is behind making those decisions, but they will find that it wasn’t the proper decision in my very, very humble opinion.”